Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 12 July 2013

Circle Mirror Transformation

The Rose Lipman Building ⋄ 5th July - 3rd August 2013

Astonishingly understated.

Stewart Pringle

Annie Baker’s play first premiered Off-Broadway in 2009. That was four years ago. Come on, London, get your shit together. This is important. Now it’s finally here, Circle Mirror Transformation is revealed to be a tremendous achievement. Written with the same atomic precision as the best of Harold Pinter, its realism and insight are the result of a meticulous translation of lived experience into astonishingly understated theatre.

We follow five characters in search of a kismet through six weeks of an adult drama class. They lie on the floor and try to count to ten, they re-enact and re-create memories, shuffling through a series of bastardized Lecoq games under the California-zen guidance of hippy teacher Marty (Imelda Staunton). The gym hall they rehearse in is lined with mirrors, and so are their games. A process of self-revelation through play that initially feels as uncomplicated and shallow as a corporate team-building day leads inevitably to complications deep enough to drown in. Some of this is familiar ground, but Baker’s play doesn’t simply tread it, it tills it, until it is particulate and distinct.

The ensemble cast is astounding – it seems unlikely that a better one will be assembled anytime soon. Toby Jones begins in his comfort-zone as awkward loser Schultz, but as the process wears away at him a more painful insufficiency can be seen through the cracks in his shellac. Baker is uninterested in commonplace conceits (lies) such as tragic heroism, and if there’s a mercilessness here, it never feels the product of her writing or Jones’ portrayel. Schultz’s romancing of fellow participant Theresa (Fenella Woolgar) is tender and truthful, his disillusionment no less so. A scene in which he coerces her for a quickie is a masterclass in emotional honesty.

Woolgar herself is ideal as the lithe and wounded 30-something who brings her hula hoop to classes for no apparent reason, and Danny Webb as Marty’s husband revisits some of the sandal hooved internal dereliction which made his performance in Vivienne Franzmann’s The Witness so remarkable. The role of Lauren is one of the play’s only true weaknesses, though her youth and preoccupation with getting some ‘real acting’ done reflect cleverly on the very different performative motives of the others in the group, her own tragic backstory feels forced in a text that elsewhere achieves an effortless realism. Nevertheless, Shannon Tarbet is strong in the role, and it’s her power of nuance that makes the play’s conclusion such a painful pleasure.

It’s Staunton who’ll break you open, though; her control over Marty’s agonising silences and brittle brave-face is the high-point of a play which has so many high-points you basically need to bring your own oxygen. Marty doesn’t know what she wants to teach, so she heals instead, which is her first and best instinct. She can’t really do that either, but you can’t blame her for trying, and if part of Baker’s own lesson to us is that art can transform us, but those transformations will naturally be as unpredictable as anything else in the world, she’s the perfect teacher.

It’s incredibly funny, but the humour never feels effortful for a moment. If the action was speeded up many of the early scenes could pass for snatches of Seinfeld, instead we here appreciate the cruelties and embarassments that develop from conversational punctuations, from stops and rests that are as revelatory as sudden discords or harmonies.

Director James Macdonald has approached Baker’s script in a spirit of total trust, allowing it the space and time to build on its own terms. In a period in which the best new writing can still feel caught up in something of a loudness war, it’s quite revelatory to see a writer and director afford their characters the dynamic range to truly flourish. Their focus on perfect timing and moments of quiet intimacy give the play an ambient momentum that is as moving as it is minimalist. Peter Mumford’s lighting, which takes advantage of the municipal atmosphere of the Rose Lipman sports hall where Circle Mirror is ingeniously presented, is a tool used very purposefully to reject the kind of dramatic closure that even the simple action of a blackout has the tendency to convey.

The silences are heartbreaking. The waiting is agonising. The blackouts are hysterical. How often can you say that?

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Circle Mirror Transformation Show Info


Directed by James MacDonald

Written by Annie Baker

Cast includes Toby Jones, Imelda Staunton, Shannon Tarbet, Danny Webb, Fenella Woolgar

Link http://royalcourttheatre.com/

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